Coping with toddler tantrums with a nonverbal or speech delayed toddler

It is super frustrating that a lot of the advice about toddler tantrums assumes that they have some kind of magical adult vocabulary to understand concepts like “big emotions” or “why”. I don’t have a toddler like that. When mine turned two we had a lovely month of “I thought the twos were supposed to be terrible?”

Then suddenly they were.

I know from six months ago when my oldest was that age that people saying “that’s normal” doesn’t help when the problem feels insurmountable. It’s hard to convey how *big* it feels when everyone else’s child is sitting still in the library and yours is trying to eat the books while running off. Mine is also on the autism referral pathway but awaiting getting to the bottom of the list. Here’s what helped me:

  • Walk away when he’s having a tantrum at home. One-handed clapping. It’s really hard but just leave him screaming on the floor. I pretend to be really engrossed in anything else and never look at him or make eye contact if he’s tantrumming. That has reduced the number of tantrums by about 70% so now we know if he’s upset, he’s seriously upset and not just “learned helplessness/attention seeking” which is common in toddlers.
  • The flipside of that is you do have to intervene if he starts to hurt himself and I honestly can’t remember how I got him to stop but thankfully he rarely does it now. I do remember wrestling his hands off his face once while he was scratching and hitting himself, and pulling him into a hug and rocking him while shouting “stop hurting yoursellllf” and crying my eyes out. Not my finest moment.
  • Have a pushchair when out and about and put him in it when he kicks off (fasten the seatbelt). The purpose is twofold. First, he learns that being able to do fun stuff is contingent on him behaving. Second, it keeps him safe if he’s prone to banging his head on the floor or running off (third, it gives you a breather from the amount of energy it takes to manage a tantrum). Also, it can be a place where he can rest when he’s calmed down.
  • Do one or two activities a day, with a break in between with low sensory input (e.g. quiet, no strong smells/tastes/lights).
  • I ensured at least one activity a day was active, e.g. soft play, swimming, the beach, because that helped him burn off energy. BUT when he was overtired he was also a nightmare, so having the pushchair for naps was really handy.
  • Speak in clear two-word sentences like “James hungry?” or “James play” or “James try” and try and help him put things into words so when he’s crying, tell him “James sad”. It took months and months and months of this but he’s got enough language now that he can usually express that he wants something or needs help even if he can’t answer, “what do you need help with?”
  • Make sure that what he needs to do is as straightforward and obvious as possible. A lot of our issues came from trying to do activities pitched as “for two-year-olds” but in reality they were wayyyy out of the reach of my delayed toddler and he freaks out when he doesn’t understand what’s going on. When I stopped trying to give him all the excitement and variety I thought he should have, and started giving him the repeated fun he knew he liked, we had less stress. We go to soft play a LOT. I worry about him missing out but he’s happy so I should stop worrying.
  • Have his favourite toy or something for him to look at like a magazine or a toy car so he can distract himself when he needs to. This helps my little one start to regulate himself.
  • Don’t fill him full of sugary snacks but something he likes to nibble/drink can help.

We still have bad hours or bad days and we haven’t solved a bunch of the bigger issues yet, and YMMV, but these things have really helped me on my own with him and his baby sister.

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